If you have ever felt bad about coming home after work and collapsing on your couch to watch hours of reality TV, don’t. Simply look to New York Times best-selling author Jessica Knoll whose second novel, The Favorite Sister, is centered around the intriguing lives of reality TV stars.
Knoll, who is a huge fan of The Real Housewives franchise and often binges on seasons, realized there were so many rich, story templates sitting right in front of her eyes that writing about this subject for her follow-up book was a bit of a no-brainer. And there is no doubt that this book will do as well as her first, The Luckiest Girl Alive, which sold over 450,000 copes and spent four months on the Times’ best-seller list. Oh and Reese Witherspoon bought the rights for the film.
Similar to Luckiest Girl Alive, The Favorite Sister is a wonderful combination of frivolous lightness and some super, dark and tragic fodder that will haunt you for days. “Luckiest Girl Alive is the kind of book that grabs you and doesn’t let go,” Witherspoon said in 2015 after she bought the rights. In The Favorite Sister, there is no carefully architected engagement at the end, but rather a murder.
But when Knoll, a former editor for Cosmopolitan and SELF, isn’t watching reality TV she is a force of nature as she is working on multiple television and film projects and already has an idea for her third book.
She isn’t afraid to say she is working hard because she loves it but also because she wants to reap the rewards (and we’re talking big rewards.) Earlier this month she wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.” In the essay, which went viral, she explains that she has always had this drive to be a financially successful person and she encourages other women to adopt this sorry, not sorry mindset when it comes to making the big bucks.
Knoll who experienced a horrible tragedy herself as a teenager says once she began to process that it truly altered her definition of success. She wrote in The Times, “I decided I could not consider myself successful unless I was somebody powerful, somebody nobody could hurt. Success became a means to wrest back control, literally to increase my value. There is a metonym for that: money.”
As I said, she is a force of nature. Ladders spoke with Knoll in the midst of her very busy book tour about her amazing drive, what she learned from fellow ambitious woman Reese Witherspoon, the complexities of Real Housewives, and her secret hack for fueling all that passion.
On that viral essay
It had been percolating for a while. I knew I wanted to write something about women and ambition. I was thinking a lot about that great essay that Reese Witherspoon wrote for Glamour earlier this year about how ambition isn’t a dirty word. I was thinking about a way to continue that conversation and then the Ellen Pompeo Hollywood Reporter interview came out [in which she discussed being the highest paid woman on television.] And when I read it I was so galvanized by it, but I thought she is just going to get eaten alive on the internet because she was so candid about money.
But the reaction was just the opposite. People were just crazy for it. Something fused there with Reese talking about ambition being a dirty word and Ellen Pompeo talking so candidly about actresses needing to prioritize making money in their career.
On the stereotypes against ‘creative types’
It was always a subconscious drive [to make money.] People would make certain comments like, ‘Oh you’re going to live that starving artist life. That never rang true to me, but I didn’t know how to correct anyone that made those sort of assumptions. In my head, the reaction was always, ‘No, I’m going to do more with my writing or my writing is going to take me places.’ That was always the response I wanted to give but, you know, being a woman I never wanted to correct anyone. I wouldn’t vocalize that.
I also think people have notions about creative types. And not to keep referencing Reese Witherspoon but in this other Wall Street Journal article she talked about her dream to be an actor was never so big that she was willing to live out of her car for it. If acting hadn’t worked out she said I would have gone and done something else and that’s exactly how I felt. If writing hadn’t worked out, I would have gone and started my own business. I’m glad this worked because this is what I feel passionate about doing, but I wouldn’t have done it at the expense of the starving artist lifestyle. That’s not for me.
On what she learned from Reese Witherspoon
She actually had some great editorial advice for the first script of Luckiest Girl Alive. Since then I’ve gone on to write two additional scripts. I’ve just been very impressed by how well actresses understand the rhythm of a script, the arc of a script. She really acted as an editor for me. I didn’t realize that as an actor they have to be multi-faceted. It’s not just what they do in front of the camera.
They have opinions about the script, they have opinions about the development, where certain actions should take place, where it is feeling too slow, etc., She definitely taught me about the scriptwriting process.
On why she chose reality TV for her focus
It was a dark time [when she wrote The Favorite Sister.] I had just moved across the country, the election had just happened, so I wanted to write about something that makes me happy and also intrigues me. Just gets my blood going. But in a way, I’ve come to figure this out that [reality TV] is kind of built-in storylines. After expending so much creative energy to write the first book and then write the script and then another script in between that and then to move across the country, I was really tapped out.
For some reason, a friend and I went back and watched the first season of Real Housewives of New York and I remembered the Jill and Bethenny feud and how heartbreaking that was. It all started to come apart and it was just this mini-drama. I could borrow some of the emotions from this and use it as a template. There was a little bit of poaching going on.
I also remember watching an episode of The OC Housewives and they go to Ireland for their trip and they all gang up on this one housewife and it was so heated that I had this thought that this woman could open a window and jump out of the bus and I wouldn’t be surprised. This is so unbearable. I realized that line is so thin to cross into homicidal violence.
On going into that dark place when she writes
It’s definitely a natural organic one to get dark. Something people have pointed out in my books is that crime doesn’t have a place in a book like this because some of the issues or the characters seem so frivolous or shallow. But these two things make perfect sense for me.
To have these women with these so-called glamorous lives that are maybe shallow on the surface, but women’s interior lives are so rich just rife with angst and tension and rage. And we’re so good at putting on a face and saying, ‘My life is perfect’ and I’m very interested in people becoming unraveled from that place because of the pressure becoming too much. I feel like that in my own life some days. That’s why my books have that lightness and darkness to it. Again, I just think that line is so fine.
On struggling with balance
Work-life balance is very important and I have not figured that out. I really did a number on myself over the last year. I was not OK last summer when I was working on the book. I worked every day and only had one weekend off. I felt like I had the flu all the time and it was just chronic fatigue.
My first book was more manageable. I would have that hard stop in the morning and then would go into work. This was hard because I had all day and I wasn’t disciplined enough to get up and go outside and get some fresh air. I wouldn’t go to a yoga class. I became very isolated. With these new projects, I am going to have a little bit more time. So whether it’s really committing to work hours and closing the laptop and going to do something, I want to figure that out.
It is very important for your mental health and your productivity. I don’t think you get any more done by crushing yourself for 12 hour days 7 days a week. Then that would just catch up to me and I would be on the couch feeling sick for two days.
On the best career advice
The best advice I ever saw was in an old article in Cosmopolitan that ran 10 years ago and it was on why you shouldn’t tell anyone your dreams. The reasoning was if you have a big goal like I’m gonna run a marathon or write a book if you tell someone the response is always like, ‘Good for you. I’m so impressed!’ so you get this praise and the reward center lights up in your brain and then you’re like, ‘Why do I have to do it? I’ve gotten to enjoy the adulation.’ So I was extremely close-mouthed when I was writing Luckiest Girl.
My parents kind of knew it and obviously, my husband knew because I was working on it all the time at the apartment, but I didn’t really tell anyone because I didn’t want to be congratulated on something I hadn’t done yet. It served me really well. You need so much work ethic to get a book finished so anything you can do to preserve that motivation is important.
Keep it close to the vest. Let the idea of what people are going to say when it is really earned fuel you.